Going Solar

A few years ago I decided to get a solar water heater installed on our roof as it seemed like a fairly simple way to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and to reduce our carbon emissions. It was also cheaper than solar panels and would have a greater impact than spending an equivalent amount on any other form of renewable energy. Tania Willis and myself did some research into local companies supplying water heaters and Tania also made some inquiries at one or two local businesses that had had heaters installed. There seemed to be a lot of companies sourcing heaters from the mainland and acting as retailers for them. These heaters were quite cheap, but there was the risk of buying equipment from a company that might disappear overnight – some did – and having to try to get maintenance or spare parts from the supplier on the mainland, which would be a major hassle, to say the least. So I decided to go for a Hong Kong company which had been established 12 years and which had installed various products in local schools and companies, and seemed to have a good record. Their products were of German/British manufacture and I had more faith in this than one of Chinese manufacture. All in all, this cost me twice as much as it would have done if I’d gone for a cheap one. There was quite a lot of ‘tweaking’ to be done to get things right, but this was all done free for the first two years. The company has always been very helpful and accommodating, and I’m happy with the service they’ve offered. However, having spoken to someone who has got one of the cheaper models, I’m not convinced I’ve got a better product than he has, although time may tell, as rust is more likely to affect his frame than it is my aluminium one.
As far as performance goes, it works very well for a family of four as long as the sun shines. The temperature of the water needs to be at least 40 degrees, and preferably over 50, which means it’s fine in the summer, but less effective in the winter. No sun at all means no hot water, so it’s necessary to switch back to the electric wall heater. The problem with this is that since inserting the solar heater, the electric one doesn’t work properly, insofar as it switches suddenly from hot to cold and vice versa. It is also less convenient having to switch from one system to another, even though it can be done easily, and you have to wait for the hot water to come through if you’re using the solar heater. So it isn’t as efficient as one of the super-duper-instant-hot-water-at-the-pressure-you-want systems, but that’s not why we bought it. We want to reduce our carbon emissions and to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, as I’ve already said, and that means less convenience or, if you like, a lower standard of living. Using the solar heater has obviously reduced our carbon emissions, and it has reduced our electricity bills, but it’s difficult to quantify, partly because my wife has also installed ceiling fans which has meant that the air conditioners no longer need to be used. In fact, I would say that the fans are probably the best way of making a significant reduction in your carbon emissions, and they are not expensive.

I recently went back to the company that installed my water heater and asked them to assess how much it would cost me to install solar panels. I had to list the items I wanted to run off the solar panels, and assess how much energy they used, and then they gave me an estimate. This, I thought, was highly unsatisfactory because my estimate of how much energy each item used was little more than an uneducated guess using the electricity bills from different times of the year, so that I could roughly work out what the a/c used. I was told not to include the a/c as it would be prohibitively expensive to run it on solar panels. Thus I had a stab at estimating usage for fridges, TVs, the computer and attachments, and such like, but omitting the biggest consumer of energy – the a/c. This still would have needed three solar panels and the necessary batteries and attachments, all costing HK$42,000. Apart from the fact that the company made no attempt to do a proper assessment themselves, I thought it a very expensive way to run a handful of electrical goods which don’t actually use up a great deal of energy. So, that idea has been kicked into touch for the foreseeable future.

Of course, if there were any kind of incentives from the government for people to use solar power, such as feed-in tariffs which would enable you to sell your excess electricity back to the government, as in Germany, then more people might be interested. If the government hadn’t given everyone rebates on their electricity bills every month, and had used the money to set up small-scale renewable energy systems in places such as the outlying islands and villages in the New Territories then we might now have the beginnings of a system with some resilience to the coming shocks of fossil fuel depletion. Unfortunately, the government hasn’t shown the slightest interest in taking peak oil or global warming seriously, and consequently has no worthwhile plans of any sort in place, never mind for renewable energy. Here is a link to the typically pusillanimous approach of the government:


I find this shifting of responsibility onto individuals and companies, and allowing them to decide whether they want to do anything or not, is contemptible, and typical of Hong Kong. Until there is some government incentive for people to turn to renewable energy, I would suggest looking at other ways of cutting down your emissions, such as not flying, getting rid of your car, and becoming a vegetarian!

Don Latter


About transitionsl

I've been an English teacher for the best part of 30 years, teaching in England, Tanzania, Brunei, Australia and Hong Kong. I've always been interested in nature and environmental issues, but it was the discovery of Peak Oil about five years ago that galvanised me into trying to help my local community to prepare for what will be a dramatically different world to the one many of us have been used to. I've been helping to run a transition group, following the guidelines created by Rob Hopkins's Transition Movement in the UK. This blog is an attempt to engage in discussion with a wider group of people in Hong Kong on the ways to transition from our current oil dependency to a state of fossil-free local resilience.
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